Only one graduating class in Michiana can boast 100 percent employment for its graduates. And this class had to overcome overwhelming odds to achieve it. The seven graduates of Project Search, a school-to-work program for young adults with significant disabilities, all landed jobs within one week of their June 4 graduation ceremony.
They didn’t wear caps and gowns, but when they stepped up to the podium at Pfeil Innovation Center in South Bend to collect their certificates, they sounded just like graduates everywhere, thanking parents, friends and teachers for their prayers and support. They also thanked those who believed in them. Because not everybody did. These were, after all, students in special education classes.
“Without your help, I don’t know where I’d be,” said Brandon Blount, flashing a grateful smile to his job coaches, Katy Gerring and Katelyn Andrysiak of ADEC.
“Thank you for believing anything is possible for me,” said Alex Nelson. “I really appreciate it.”
In her student address, Sarah Holland talked about the “wealth of work experience” she and her Project Search classmates received. Each completed three 10-week rotations at jobs in the Beacon Health System, performing such tasks as cleaning, filing, sterilizing equipment, preparing food and dishwashing. The one-year work immersion gave them the experience of being employed.
“We learned to be on time, we learned how to ride the Transpo, we learned to take pride in our work and be thorough,” Sarah said. “We gained personal growth and confidence.”
“It just means everything,” said Vicky Holland, Sarah’s mother, holding back tears. “She has grown so much.”
Project Search began in 1996 at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital as a way to provide employment for those with disabilities while also filling high turnover, entry-level jobs. ADEC, a nonprofit agency providing advocacy and services to people with disabilities, brought Project Search to South Bend in 2010, working collaboratively with Memorial Hospital, now part of Beacon Health System, Indiana Vocational Rehabilitation, Indiana University and the South Bend Community Schools.
A few weeks before her daughter’s graduation, Vicky wrote a note of appreciation to the president of Memorial Hospital, Kreg Gruber, letting him know just how meaningful the work experience was for Sarah and her classmates and how proud she was as a mother to drop her daughter off for work every morning wearing her brown and tan scrubs. “Based on the progress and growth I have witnessed in all of the kids that participate – it is a program that should continue for years to come,” she wrote.
“This is so important because so many businesses don’t have the patience to teach job skills,” Vicky Holland said during the graduation reception. “Without programs like this, how can they be successful?”
Sarah interviewed later that day for a position in food service at Tanglewood Trace Assisted Living.
She got the job.
Another graduate, Ash Newman, was invited during the graduation reception to apply for a job at Memorial Hospital. She received her job offer Monday, June 9.
The rest of the graduates landed their jobs during the Project Search rotations. Jaloni Strong, the first one hired, works as a dishwasher at St. Mary’s College. Brandon Blount works part-time in one of the dining halls at the University of Notre Dame. Alex Nelson now works at McDonald’s in South Bend.
Jalen Lax-Willis and James Dunivent both got jobs at Krogers on Western Avenue in South Bend. The grocery store wasn’t a good fit for James, so he’s back in the job search, but confident he’ll find something else soon.
Working, they all agreed, gives them purpose, enjoyment and the confidence to pursue other goals, like getting a driver’s license or a GED.
“Project Search helped me to find a job and to be the person I am today,” said Brandon.